THE government must implement policies and regulations that make nutritious food available, accessible and affordable for Namibians.
This was said by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) representative in Namibia, Farayi Zimudzi, during the commemoration of World Food Day at Outapi in the Omusati region, last week.
Hosted under the theme 'Our Actions Are Our Future: Healthy Diets for a Zero Hunger World', the day calls for action and highlights the importance of food and agriculture in the implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.
"Zero hunger is not only about addressing hunger, but also nourishing people, while nurturing the planet. [... ] It is clear there is a need to change our focus from just producing more food to producing more nutritious food, but also properly processing and preparing that food in order to benefit from all the nutrients," Zimudzi said.
The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) last week published its findings on the issue of children, food and nutrition in their 'State of the World's Children' report and detailed that a significant proportion of Namibia's young children are not getting their recommended nutrient intake.
The report detailed that approximately 288 840 of Namibia's 332 000 children under the age of five are not receiving the minimum acceptable diet for infants and young children.
This means the majority of infants and young children are only getting nutrients from three or less of the seven food groups. They are also not meeting the minimum daily meals recommended for their demographic.
Furthermore, the report said poor diets are now one of the leading causes of death worldwide.
Melanie Meiring, a Windhoek-based nutritionist, noted that malnourishment in the country's population is a result of a poor diet comprising maize meal and sugar, which lack important micronutrients.
"For example, those Christmas boxes that you can buy for people who don't have so much money - there's only processed food in it," she observed.
"I totally understand that healthy food is expensive [and] people living in slums or in the field can't go to Woolworths to buy fruit and vegetables. But it doesn't even last a week, so they have to come back to this one [maize and sugar) because it lasts longer and it's cheap."
The Unicef report also detailed that poverty is often at the heart of malnutrition.
"Poor children are more likely to be underfed and malnourished, get sick, not complete school and fall back into poverty in the aftermath of drought, disease or economic instability," it read.
Furthermore, it observed that children of malnourished mothers are more likely to suffer stunting, cognitive impairments, weakened immunity and a higher risk of disease and death.
Unicef reports that 9% of Namibian women over the age of 18 are underweight, while 23% of the same demographic suffer from anaemia.
The report warned that these forms of maternal malnutrition increase the risk of pre-term birth and low birthweight, which in turn increase the risk of neonatal death, stunting and wasting.
According to the report, 16% of Namibian children under age five (approximately 53 120) recorded a low birthweight, while 23% are stunted, 7% are moderately to severely wasted (too thin for their height) and 4% are overweight.
The report said these impacts perpetuate intergenerational cycles of malnutrition and inequity.
According to dietician Samantha du Toit, children engulfed in an intergenerational cycle of malnutrition have a poorer chance of life.
"Anaemic and underweight women, unfortunately, do give birth to smaller weight infants and they just have a poorer chance of life," Du Toit said.
Du Toit said educating the population on nutrition, balanced diets and poverty eradication are key in tackling the issue. Sharing Du Toit's sentiments, chairperson of the parliamentary standing committee on urban and rural development and Gobabis constituency councillor, Phillipus Katamelo, said most Namibians lack basic knowledge about nutrition.
"What lacks, including for myself, is that when you look at a child who is youngher than five, for example, the child looks healthy, but when you press their body and see that it makes a deep hole ... people don't realise that that is so severe," he said, describing the general ignorance to malnutrition symptoms.
Katamelo said while his office has made efforts to monitor malnutrition, the issue should be approached proactively, rather than reactively.
"The problem is that we are more responsive to catastrophe than trying to prevent it," he said.
He said there are efforts to educate communities on the subject and to provide assistive services.
"The clinic next to my office started a project in which we try to help with some kind of a balanced diet. It's not just about eating, it's about the right balance," he said.
Moreover, Katamelo said the government needs to implement intervention strategies, especially given the current drought.
"Drought is always a possibility, but the manner in which we plan, we tend to plan as though drought will never happen. Drought is part of our DNA in this country," he said.
Agriculture minister Alpheus !Naruseb in his keynote address at the World Food Day event said the government will continue addressing the economic challenges of all people and of farmers, especially communal farmers, in light of climate-related calamities.
"[We] will continue to address the plight of the rural poor by ensuring that development is taken to the rural areas," he said.
Responding to questions by The Namibian, health executive director Ben Namgombe said the ministry prioritises promoting good health and has measures to address issues of malnutrition.
"We have outreach programmes and interventions. For antenatal care for example, women are encouraged to have access to good and healthy diets so that mothers and children are healthy," he said.
"Where children are found to be anaemic, we supply fortified seeds and foods."
Nangombe also said the ministry refers cases of malnutrition for intervention, so those affected can benefit from drought relief aid.